How a war criminal justifies ethnic cleansing

Radovan Karadzic, psychiatrist turned nationalist leader turned accused war criminal, seems little changed from the last time I met him almost exactly two decades ago. I interviewed him in Sarajevo in the fall of 1991, during the run-up to the Bosnia war, at a time when he was busy mobilizing his Serbian Democratic Party for ...

MICHAEL EVSTAFIEV/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAEL EVSTAFIEV/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAEL EVSTAFIEV/AFP/Getty Images

Radovan Karadzic, psychiatrist turned nationalist leader turned accused war criminal, seems little changed from the last time I met him almost exactly two decades ago. I interviewed him in Sarajevo in the fall of 1991, during the run-up to the Bosnia war, at a time when he was busy mobilizing his Serbian Democratic Party for the coming crusade. "The destiny of Serbia is at stake," he screamed down the phone in my presence. "This is our historic hour. We must act now."

I was impressed then with his theatricality -- his swept up pompadour of scruffy gray hair made him instantly identifiable -- and single-minded focus on achieving his goals. He showed me a map of Bosnia that purported to prove that 70 percent of the country rightfully "belonged" to the Serbs, even though they accounted for only 30 percent of the population. It turned up to be a prophetic document. Within a year of our conversation, Bosnian Serb forces had turned the map into a new political reality, chasing hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their homes in what came to be known as "ethnic cleansing."

One of the places incorporated into Karadzic's "Serbian republic" was the town of Kljuc in northwestern Bosnia, which had a mixed Serb-Moslem population before the war, according to the 1991 census. After the war broke out in May 1992, Muslim-inhabited villages were bombarded with mortar fire. In one such village, Biljani, 144 Muslim men were summarily executed by Serbian paramilitaries and dumped into mass graves. Soon afterwards, the terrorized Muslim inhabitants of Kljuc were required to sign forms relinquishing all claims to their property. They were bussed out of the area after paying a fifty Deutschmark "transportation fee."

Radovan Karadzic, psychiatrist turned nationalist leader turned accused war criminal, seems little changed from the last time I met him almost exactly two decades ago. I interviewed him in Sarajevo in the fall of 1991, during the run-up to the Bosnia war, at a time when he was busy mobilizing his Serbian Democratic Party for the coming crusade. "The destiny of Serbia is at stake," he screamed down the phone in my presence. "This is our historic hour. We must act now."

I was impressed then with his theatricality — his swept up pompadour of scruffy gray hair made him instantly identifiable — and single-minded focus on achieving his goals. He showed me a map of Bosnia that purported to prove that 70 percent of the country rightfully "belonged" to the Serbs, even though they accounted for only 30 percent of the population. It turned up to be a prophetic document. Within a year of our conversation, Bosnian Serb forces had turned the map into a new political reality, chasing hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their homes in what came to be known as "ethnic cleansing."

One of the places incorporated into Karadzic’s "Serbian republic" was the town of Kljuc in northwestern Bosnia, which had a mixed Serb-Moslem population before the war, according to the 1991 census. After the war broke out in May 1992, Muslim-inhabited villages were bombarded with mortar fire. In one such village, Biljani, 144 Muslim men were summarily executed by Serbian paramilitaries and dumped into mass graves. Soon afterwards, the terrorized Muslim inhabitants of Kljuc were required to sign forms relinquishing all claims to their property. They were bussed out of the area after paying a fifty Deutschmark "transportation fee."

I was in court as Karadzic, who is conducting his own defense, attempted to prove that the ethnic cleansing operation was "normal procedure" in war. Cross-examining a former Muslim official from Kljuc, Asim Erglic, the former Bosnian Serb president argued that the Muslims all left voluntarily. He demanded to know if Erglic had personally witnessed any killings. "I remind you that this is a court of law and you are under oath," he told him.

Erglic said that he did not see any killings himself but that he had seen the bodies of some of the executed Muslims after they were exhumed. "There is no justification for such a crime," he told Karadzic.

The voluble Karadzic seems to have little difficulty slipping from one role to another. Prior to his arrest in July 2008, he worked openly in Belgrade as a practitioner of alternative medicine using the assumed name of Dragan Dabic. Disguised by a flowing white beard and long hair, he gave lectures and attracted a cult following in the new age spiritual community. Whether he is playing the part of health guru or nationalist demagogue or courtroom attorney, there is one common thread: this is a man who craves attention.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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